Liberal democratic journalism all over the civilised world is in serious trouble as the tectonic plates of state shift and re-assemble. In the UK, a continuing showdown between parliament (over expenses), the media (over hacking), the criminal justice system (over police abuse of power), is leading to a situation in which the outcome may well shape the nature of our democracy in the middle 21st century.
In Barbados this is reflected over the alleged use of a soft pornographic photograph to accompany a story which rightly should have been published by our popular press. The issue being contended is one of judgement, of the ability of senior journalists to make important decision in the public interest. It was Stanley Baldwin who said newspapers are the engines or propaganda of wealthy proprietors, but he concluded “…..power without responsibility (was) the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
Of course, a debate about the role of the press in a democratic society is healthy and has been part of the political furniture since the late 17th century (see: Emergence of a Free Press, Leonard W. Levy). The outcomes varied, from seditious libels, to the American constitutional First Amendment, the Seditious Act of 1798, right up to the UK’s Leveson Report and the continuing debate about privacy and freedom of information. The press has always been contentious.
As Louis W. Hodges has said (see: Defining Press Responsibility: A Functional Approach) by press responsibility it is generally meant the way journalists account for the performance of their responsibility. That is, defining the proper conduct of practising journalism. Journalists therefore are responsible for the accuracy of their work, but accountable to their news editors or overall editors. But it goes beyond this loose theoretical definition, especially when we talk about the fourth estate, a definition that came out of the late 17 century – referring to the clergy, nobility, commoners as the three primary institutions of 17th century society, and the newly invigorated press, as the Fourth Estate.
Although the principle stands, the shifts and changes in society will test out bias towards the important institutions of a liberal democracy: parliament, Church (established or disestablished), Monarchy (in a democratic Monarchy such as ours), then a long list of international organisations such as the United Nations, NGOs, big business, the super rich, World Trade Organisation, etc. Although the place of the press in this complex and confusing set of organisations is still unlocated, the reality is that we all look to the press to balance the power of parliament.
Although embedded in a free press is the right of anyone to call him/herself a journalist, it is still felt that those who aspire to be working journalists (journalism is a trade, not a profession), should go through some form of formal training and accreditation. In simple terms, in the wider world of liberal democratic journalism the training of new entrants has moved from on the job apprenticeships top college-based learning, yet neither the UWI nor community college has offered a world-class course for would-be journalists. But the volatile world of geo-politics, economics, science, sports and entertainment and specialist journalism is progressing at such a pace that it is futile to believe that ‘generalists’ can still operate with competence in this new environment.
It was this realisation that led me, at the height of the global financial crisis, to suggest to my managing director, Caspar de Bono, at Financial Times Group, that we should create a post-graduate degree in financial journalism jointly with a prestigious journalism school. We approached City University because, along with Caridff, it was recognised as one of the two leading journalism schools in Britain. Mr de Bono gave me permission to approached Prof Adrian Monck, then head of the school of journalism, and the rest, as they say, is history. In an unintended way, the course is now enormously popular with Asian students, in particular Chinese.
What Is Journalism For?
The role of journalism is to speak truth to the powerful, to defend the poor and marginalised, to protest against miscarriage of justice. It is not there to shore up the powerful, as a hiding place for those who seek status and influence, or to act as a career path for the well-connected. Most of all, journalism should not be used as the weapon of choice for the malicious, evil, angry, envious and twisted. Sometimes, journalism may get things wrong, it may mislead, it may even destroy the innocent, since it has no truth-testing mechanisms. Journalists have to depend on what they have been told to contacts of varying liability. However, at all times they must endeavour to be tellers of the truth. A journalism that is fraudulent is a publication or broadcaster that betrays the trust of its readers and listeners.
In any case, a lot of what passes for ‘news’ is scare-mongering, hysterical, threatening readers about their safety and overall lacks substance. In crime reporting, from violence to paedophilia, this kind of journalism is based on the doctrine of stranger/danger, the thesis that the people who pose the greatest danger to us are strangers. Or, another version, is that the evil and wicked must be loners, not part of conventional society, even though it is commonly believed that within all of us good and evil.
In reality, statistics from almost every region of the globe show that the greatest threat to our safety are not strangers, but those who we know and are close to us, such as relatives and loved ones. But it is very dangerous to tell young children that danger comes from those living in their homes and not from strangers. Just think what that would mean for the stability of the family – the corner stone of society?
In any case, contemporary journalism is predicated on an implicit ethical and moral contradiction: after the pornification of journalism for the last three decades on celebrity gossip, to now talk about the corruption of young people by internet porn. The internet is just another communicative vehicle, it is inanimate and does not write or photograph its victims. Mainstream journalism turned to soft porn and celebrity baiting as a form of monetisation of content because good, solid investigative journalism had become expensive, both in the time it took and the number of people deployed, and the huge legal risk if things went disastrously wrong. It was much easier to groom a few favoured celebrity public relations people to conspire with their clients to get the rather indiscreet picture, the revelation about their ‘private’ love lives, and so on.
The real fools in this grand conspiracy are the reading public, who not knowing of how so-called celebrities conspire with the media, would talk about the intrusion of privacy. This is but part of the dark shadow of contemporary journalism, the way journalists and their supposed victims (and those in positions of influence and authority) conspire on news stories.
Another betrayal of their readers by the media is the short attention span they give to events, with stories that only days earlier would have grabbed the front pages and the TV screens, suddenly relegated to nibs.
So, stories that were intended to stir emotions would be left unresolved as far as the readers are concerned.
Some time ago I wrote a Notes about a number of these incidents in the UK, but will give one that is now concerning the British media: the so-called slaves saved by police from a Brixton, South London, flat. One minute we were told how this elderly Asian couple had enslaved these three women for over three decades, right in the heart of civilised Britain.
Next we were told the couple had been arrested, but released on bail, so we were left to conclude they did not pose the threat the mass circulation tabloids had first suggested. Then we were told they were brainwashed, psychological handcuffs were used, not literal hard-metal ones. Then it emerged that they belonged to a small Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group, which was so way out that they must have been ‘crazy’.
The real problem with the initial reporting of this case is the enormous lack of knowledge of recent British political history by our leading contemporary journalists. Those of us who remember the 1960s and early 70s could well remember London and most of our universities and polytechnics being swamped with all kinds of break-away Marxist/anarchists/feminists/environmentalist groups. So, the group of itself was not a surprise, it was just a continuity of 1960s student rebellion, which gave, and continues to give, some of the most intellectually exciting debates in modern global history.
Those of us who spent our formative years in the trade in the shadow of Watergate and Muldergate, know full well the burden of responsibility that falls upon us. Even more than that, those of us, who through time have found ourselves in senior positions, have a duty – nay, an obligation – to pass on without fear or favour the lessons we have learned over the years. It is a duty I take quite seriously, still. The argument about an attack on the press is hysterical nonsense. I have said before and I say again: the press is part of the democratic system and it must play by the rules. It gets its legitimacy from the people and purports to speak in the public interest therefore this is a responsibility it must take seriously.
Fundamentally, development journalism is all about interrogating the institutions of power, not being deferential and kowtowing. It is about integrity, refusing free flights, accommodation and other expensive gifts from foreign governments and big businesses. In fact, even lunches and drinks should be declared in a publicly available register. It is about holding the institutions to account, reminding individuals of their responsibility, not only to the high offices of state, but to society in general.
Our leading publications should be interrogating the structure of our democracy, exposing its weaknesses and praising its strengths. However, this paucity of ideas, of expertise, has led to a culture of personal and vulgar abuse and pro-party hysteria masquerading as serious political debate. As a society we are much poorer because of this collective ignorance. The gaps in our journalism are there for all to see: lack of book reviews or any form of literary journalism (at least since the death of Wickham); no science journalism, leaving doctors as the only ‘scientist s’ in our public debate; nothing of significance about the arts; rabble rousing diatribes that pass for political journalism (where is the history of post-independence Barbados?); no economic or business journalism.
The Economics of Digital Publishing:
While the debate is concentrating on the practice of journalism, the business side is also worth considering. For all the muddled thinking about digital publishing and monetising content, the reality is that consumers’ disposal incomes are shrinking and, over and above this, people are increasingly reluctant to spend large amounts of money on a product that brings them information that, with time and inclination, is available free of charge on the internet.
Given this, there are two kinds of information that consumers would generally be prepared to pay for: information relevant to their career development, and information central to their leisure and sporting interests. Conventional news will remain free on the major and most popular websites, who cannot really charge for salacious bits of celebrity gossip. If the individual news sites and aggregators try to ‘monetise’ such information, then the celebrities and their publicity agents will resort to launching their own free sites and using social media to promote themselves. Other commercially minded people will set up rival sites offering access to free ‘news’, while introducing other charging models, such as advertising or charging individuals to publicise their information.
Analysis and Conclusion:
Many assumptions are made about journalism with each person defining and re-defining what journalism should be and what it is. Few, however, have taken any time out, even among those who make a living in the trade, to give it serious consideration. Journalism is not morally neutral, as has been generally accepted by the more thoughtful theorists. As an empirical discipline, it operates through the prism of the liberal democratic biases of our society and, in fact, these prejudices are embedded in its very key concepts: objectivity, balance, right of reply, etc. It varies from what constitutes a story – dog bites man is not a story, but man bites dog is, as any good news editor will say. The principle of popular journalism is driven in to every young trainee from day one: dog bites man is no story; man bites dog is a story. In other words, a story, however basic, must be ramped up, exaggerated, pumped for every jaw-dropping, terrifying angle that can be got out of it. The more scary, unusual, out of this world it is, the more it is considered to be a brilliant story. The thing about stories packed with such hyperbole is that readers rarely return to the scene of the crime, they hardly ever re-read stories for their original factual content. This failure of contemporary journalism is not just one of financial crisis, but more fundamentally a failure of ideas and creativity. I used to find it rather funny listening BBC Radio Four presenters interviewing BBC reporters who had just been parachuted in to some trouble spot about the history of the conflict and the personalities of the leading individuals. It was not only cheap, safe, conservative journalism, but it was a classic reinforcement of basic prejudices since the reporter was highly unlikely to challenge perceived biases with his/her professional reputation (and career) at risk.
In the final analysis, journalism must inform, educate and entertain; its content must also be relevant and interesting, but never vile and malicious. But by importing the vulgar supermarket trash that passes for news in some countries, every detail about some minor pop star, the Caribbean press has largely failed in its mission to educate and inform.